Everyone is a leader in his or her organization. Even if you don’t hold a titled leadership position, such as supervisor, manager, human resource director, or CEO, you still have many opportunities every day through your actions and behavior to model “leadership” qualities. In fact, all employees must be able and willing to assume a leadership role when the need arises, regardless of their job title. That is why many organizations have eliminated titles like foreman, supervisor, and department manager to reinforce the belief that each employee is a contributing member of the team with leadership potential and opportunities depending on the task at hand. If you don’t see yourself as having leadership qualities, then you’ll miss many opportunities to demonstrate your added value to your employer, co-workers, and customers. You will also be undermining yourself, because if you’re not confident of your leadership potential, then why should anyone else be?
Being a leader simply means you are willing to teach and support others, be a positive role model, and be ready to serve as well as lead when necessary and appropriate. Effective leaders can be found at every level in an organization. Even if you work under someone else’s leadership, you can still be a leader in your ideas and attitudes about your job. While it may be true that some people seem to fall into the role of leader more easily than others, it is possible for most of us to develop the abilities that will help us take charge, motivate others, and make good decisions. Below are some of the top qualities leaders possess.
1. Leaders are Trustworthy and Act with Integrity
In today’s business environment where teamwork is crucial, there can be no doubt that all employees must be able to be trusted by their managers, co-workers, and customers. For example, good leaders do not criticize their co-workers behind their backs, and they don’t take credit that belongs to everyone on the team. Instead, they build trust by openly admitting their mistakes rather than blaming others. They give credit where credit is due, and they help others celebrate their successes. Leaders build trust with customers and co-workers by acting with integrity. They make sure their words and actions are congruent all the time, not just when it’s convenient. They can be counted on to do what is fair and right.
2. Leaders are High Achievers who Strive for Excellence
Many employers who talk about their employees’ leadership abilities mention words like “perseverance” and “determination.” Leaders keep working to be the best they can be. They stay focused on their goals, but they keep things in perspective and realize that there is always room for improvement. They continually strive to learn more about themselves and their jobs. They integrate excellence into every task. Do you see yourself as a hard worker-as a star performer? Even though you may not own the organization, do you own a sense of pride in your work and your ability to contribute? Do you see yourself striving to outperform others and set new standards of excellence for your department and your organization? A good leader must have a strong desire to be the best by providing outstanding customer service and working hard to create an excellent, cohesive, and productive workforce. Even if they don’t succeed at the task, leaders keep working at it.
3. Leaders Make Others Feel Important and Valued
Leaders value other people’s worth and opinions and take the time to let them know they are important. They take the time to pay someone a compliment and keep criticisms, complaints, and negative comments short and sweet. They also make both their co-workers and customers feel important by asking questions, listening, and tuning in to their needs. They realize that such questions as, “Do you need some help?” and “Do you want me to listen for your phone while you take a break?” demonstrate their ability to tune into others’ needs as well as their own. In your leadership role, how generous are you with positive words and actions? Are you committed to helping others feel better about themselves? Do you value people and their ideas? Making others feel important and valuable could help make you invaluable to your organization.
4. Leaders are Willing to Serve Others
To some people, serving others may seem like the role of a subordinate, not a leader. But in fact, a good leader believes in service to others. If that sounds contradictory, think of words such as “cooperate,” “help,” “work collectively,” and “share” because they more accurately reflect the true nature of service to others. Organizations need employees who are willing to help each other, not whine and complain saying, “That’s not my job.” The future will demand that people learn new skills outside their area of expertise and use them to support other team members, even when it’s “not their job.” Are you willing to do what is needed even if it doesn’t fall under your specific job description? Leaders support their co-workers when it counts, not just when it’s convenient.
5. Leaders are Relationship Builders
An effective leader knows how to build good relationships so that individuals care more about the good of the entire team than about themselves and their own personal glory. In the workplace, employers need employees who can “run with the ball” by themselves when necessary, as well as build and maintain good team relationships. Do you work actively to build good team relationships? Hopefully so, because it is an important part of being an effective leader. Equally important are good relationships with clients and customers. In today’s world, many companies do business with people they barely know, sometimes people they’ve never met. But the most successful and rewarding transactions, more often than not, involve parties who have developed a solid business relationship. Good leaders understand the importance of building good relationships with their colleagues and their customers.
6. Leaders Communicate Effectively
Every CEO, manager, human resource director, employer, and employee must be able to state what they need, want, or prefer with confidence and in a manner that is clear, honest, and forthright. But good leaders must go even further. They must be able to interpret the needs, wants, and preferences of their colleagues and customers to create a cooperative and successful work environment. Effective communication is the cement that binds an organization together. It is the foundation upon which successful teamwork and good customer relationships are built. It is no accident that employees who can communicate effectively and assertively soon find themselves in leadership roles. While leadership may come naturally for some, for others developing strong leadership skills takes thought, practice, and hard work. But it’s definitely worth the effort, because these skills will benefit all of your personal and professional relationships. Leadership skills are life skills. Being a good leader is a 24-hour a day job. If these are skills you’ve been neglecting, start developing them now. Today’s organizations need employees who are ready and willing to lead at a moment’s notice. Your leadership skills and abilities will help determine your present and future employability.
Partial Interview with Connie Podesta
GIJ: When did you set your goal to become a professional speaker?
PODESTA: To be honest, setting goals has never been a priority for me. I have found that for many people setting goals proves to be self-limiting rather than self-motivating and, unfortunately, often leads to a great amount of stress and feelings of insecurity. I do, however, totally believe in having what I term ‘life goals’ which are value based. Examples are: I will try to be a person of integrity who can be trusted; I will try to be a person who respects others as well as myself; I will try to always meet my commitments and give as much of my energy, intellect and creativity to tasks as I can. The interesting thing is if we strive to reach these life value goals, we usually also meet the more materialistic goals.
GIJ: Sometimes, in order to reach life goals, you have to take risks. What if you’re in an organization that doesn’t encourage risk-taking?
PODESTA: The reality is that most organizations in any industry do not encourage risk-taking. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to be creative and energetic about our job and customers and offer ideas about how things could be done differently and more effectively. The problem is that many employees complain and gripe without offering any solutions. We must always remember that if we are suggesting our company take a risk, we must be able to prove that the risk has a strong possibility of either servicing our customer better or increasing the bottom line profit margin of the company. Many people in the insurance industry complain of burnout. That is another word for boredom. When we stop thinking about new and better ways to do our job and become complacent and just “do what is expected” we reach burnout.
GIJ: How could those that are burning out make their jobs more interesting?
PODESTA: If you are in an industry or job that is by nature boring, you still have choices. You can either find another position that is more exciting or look for ways to make your current job, or at least parts of it, more stimulating. This does not mean we will never be bored. There are dull, unfulfilling, menial tasks in every job. In insurance sales, I often hear people complain about the amount of rejection they receive and how it affects them. In fact, many salespeople use this rejection as an excuse or reason for why they act or behave the way they do. There is not an educated, intelligent person I know that is not totally aware that if you choose to go into sales, you can count on rejection. This is a given. The payoffs must outweigh the problems. Sometimes people in sales forget that we are in this business because we love the payoff, the thrill of the sale and the unbelievable high we feel every time we convince, persuade or negotiate a deal. This does not mean that we are just out for money. In fact, for the true salesperson, it is more about the complex nature of negotiating the sale itself than it ever is about the money. The great thing about what we do is the fact that we are also lucky enough to be able to sell a product that can indeed benefit other people.
GIJ: Could you talk a little bit about people changing, taking the concept of change from the cognitive level and putting it into practice?
PODESTA: When people call and ask if I will come and present a workshop on change, I tell them that it’s too short. Three words: Deal With It!
GIJ: But what if someone doesn’t want to deal with the changes?
PODESTA: In today’s competitive work environment, employees do not have the choice of whether to accept and integrate change, not if they are interested in keeping their job, their customer and their paycheck. I keep hearing people complain about compliance and managed care for example. I listen for awhile and then I ask them, “So, now I understand that you do not like these things. But since they are not going to go away or change in the near future, what are your plans for how you are going to deal with the situation you find yourself in and still do the best job you can for your customer?” And most people do not have an answer. In an environment where 2,000 to 3,000 people a day are losing their jobs, the reality is that we must change whether we want to or not if we would like to stay employed. My employees know that the minute we finish one project, there will be two more ready to go. Is it stressful? You bet! Is it fun? Only if we look at change as the only way for all of us to stay in business.
GIJ: But for most people change is very difficult. You make it sound as if it should be easy.
PODESTA: Just because someone faces reality and moves ahead without complaining, does not mean it was easy for them. Nothing in life that will ever make a significant impact is easy. But I do believe we seriously underestimate people today. I think many people don’t handle change well because we don’t expect them to. Our country is where it is because we are a society willing to take great risks and face constant change. I don’t think the captain on the Mayflower was having little workshops on How to Handle Change in the New World. We sometimes forget that we are a very resilient people. We can handle stress and change, even great amount of change, if we will admit to one thing: change requires a vast amount of hard work.
GIJ: How can a company motivate its employees to accept change and work harder?
PODESTA: I don’t believe that is the company’s responsibility to motivate its employees! I own a company and I have many responsibilities both legally and ethically to my staff. I have an obligation to pay them competitively and fairly, to allow them to experience growth and be creative, to treat them with dignity and respect and to provide a service and a product that they can feel proud of. But I do not have an obligation to motivate them or make them happy because those are things that must take place internally, not externally. We always have a choice about how to deal with the hand we are dealt. We can sit, whine, and complain about what’s happened in the insurance industry and why the doctors are mad and how nobody cares about what we are going through. Or, we can sit back and say, “You’re right, this is not a good situation in the insurance industry right now. This is definitely not the way I would like to do business. However, the reality is that for the near future, this is the situation I find myself in. So, I have some choices. I can either leave the insurance industry because I can’t ethically do this anymore, I can stay in the business an complain and slowly lose my customers or I can dig in and fight to make it the best I can within the limits given to me.”
GIJ: How do you define a leader? What does leadership mean to you?
PODESTA: Leadership is every word that comes out of our mouth and every move we make. It has nothing to do with titles. Leadership is the awareness that everything you do, how you live your life, the choices you make, how you communicate and interact with other people, is being constantly observed. This does not mean that we will always succeed. We will make mistakes. But, we should never forget that we are always being watched and others’ perceptions of us are based on our actions, behaviors, attitudes and style of communication. So, everyone is a leader at every level. The term leader is synonymous with the term character. Character is not how we act when things are going good. Character is how we act when our life is so different than what we had planned; we don’t even know where to turn. You are on stage every time you walk into the office, into your church, or into your home. Each of us is on stage with the world watching. And the choices we make about how to act and react will change our life.
GIJ: You often talk about the importance of lifelong learning. What do you mean by this and how do you distinguish between personal and professional growth?
PODESTA: I never distinguish between personal and professional growth because I don’t think we can separate these as though we are two separate people. If you are a manager and you can’t get an employee to work on time, then you will never get your teenagers to meet their curfew. The skill is exactly the same. If you don’t get along with people professionally, then you don’t get along with them at church or at the Golf club; it’s the same skill. So, the things we are learning in our professional life can usually apply to our personal life. When we’re training people in terms of teamwork, customer service, leadership or management, all of those directly tie in to things that they could also be learning about their personal life and relationships. Companies should do far more to help their employees learn skills that would help them in their personal life as well as their professional life.
GIJ: Isn’t this really a self-respect issue? How can we help our colleagues gain that healthy self-respect?
PODESTA: We must recognize that the word self-respect begins with the word self because that is where we must discover it and nurture it, within ourselves. That does not mean we can’t help others by being kind, honest, caring and respectful. The number one way to help people with their self-respect is, I believe, to be honest. We don’t tell people the truth. Not because we are dishonest people but usually because we do not want to hurt anyone. We also need to avoid manipulative communication. Have you ever heard of the ‘sandwich technique’? It’s based on the myth that we are not mature enough to handle criticism and therefore we should sandwich our criticism between two compliments. For example, if you’re my employee and I want to tell you that the quality of your latest project was not that great, I would bring you into my office and first tell you what a great employee you are. Then I quickly slide in the part about how disappointed I was with your last report, and then I go back and repeat how happy I am to have you working for me. The result is that no one believes the compliments anymore because, we only compliment when we’re about to say something bad, so the compliment is lost, it’s negated. If someone has done something good, give them a compliment with no buts. And if someone has done something that you need to improve, say it respectfully. We can all take criticism, what we can’t take is deceit and game playing.
GIJ: Honesty is sometimes difficult. In this compliance-dominated industry, the advisors have trouble building relationships and servicing their clients with the handcuffs of compliancy restraining them. How can they deal with that?
PODESTA: Compliance does not compromise the need for honesty but makes it only the more important. Clients need to know the truth. They need and deserve to know what they can legitimately expect in terms of fees and service. One of the biggest temptations in any sales job is to not be totally honest so we can make the sale. And it always comes back to bite us. The hardest thing to do in sales is say no to a customer ready to buy. But to be successful in sales we have to always think long-term. I might get the customer now, but if I can’t deliver what they want, I lose in many ways in the end and I have a customer that does not have good things to say about me. Some of the insurance people I know that have been the most successful have just been honest and told their customers, “Let me tell you how it is right now. Let me explain what I will honestly be able to do and not do for you so you can make the best choice possible. Here’s what I am ethically and legally able to do for you. And, in the confines of that please know, I will do everything possible to give you the best service possible. One thing is for sure, you can always trust that I will be forthright.”
GIJ: People seek the familiar. Can that behavior change?
PODESTA: Most people change a behavior because their survival depends upon it. None of us goes through the agony of changing a habit unless it is imperative that we do so. Habits have a great deal of payoff. That’s why they’re habits. We most certainly won’t change simply because someone else wants us to. So, if someone is doing something that is inappropriate or ineffective and they can still convince their customers to buy from them and they will have the respect and positive recognition from their peers, they are not going to change their habits, behaviors or attitudes. If, however, any of their behaviors begin to cause them to lose clients, or they begin getting negative feedback and it affects their bottom line profit, then perhaps one morning they’ll wake up and say, “I’ve got to do something about this.” Not because they want to, but it’s now affecting their survival.
GIJ: Is there anything we didn’t discuss that you’d like to talk about?
PODESTA: Yes, what we have been talking about is taking control of our lives and being responsible for our actions and decisions. The choices we’ve made since we became adults are decisions we need to take ownership of. There is no one to blame anymore. Many times people ask if I am a motivational speaker and I answer, “Not really.” I do not preach the typical motivational jargon. The truth is we won’t get everything we want no matter how much we want it. That’s life, that’s reality. And often it won’t even be fair because we probably deserved it. How do we choose to deal with all the things in life that aren’t fair? All the things we want that we won’t ever get. Our character is built upon self-respect. Until a human believes they are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect and that others deserve the same, there is nothing that can make us truly happy.
GIJ: But if you’re 45 years old and you’ve never believed that before, how are you going to start building self-respect today?
PODESTA: You change because you decide to behave differently. One morning when you wake up you say, “Every decision I make, I’m going to think about seriously this time. There is no one else to blame for my decisions. My life at this moment is a result of the choices I have made. And I can change that! I can begin to make better choices for myself. I can be determined to treat myself better in the future than I have in the past.” The truth is this: no one in your life will ever treat you better than you treat yourself. Your relationships mirror how you feel about yourself. When you realize that you must first believe in yourself, then, and only then, can you begin to learn what you need to do to change your life. Lifelong learning is not just about new skills or classes. It is about the continual growth within ourselves, a constant self-reevaluation of who we are and how much more we can grow. It is about not looking to others for our own happiness, motivation and fulfillment, but rather about looking within. It is sad, but the truth is most of us live our entire life knowing other people far better than we ever know ourselves. Perhaps the hardest lesson in life to learn is that although it may be difficult to find happiness within us, it is impossible to find it elsewhere.
Award-winning keynote speaker and author, educator, entrepreneur, human resource professional, actress, comedienne, song-writer, radio/TV talk show personality, board-certified organizational/family therapist, and executive life/career coach.http://ConniePodesta.com for more information or call 972.596.5501